Florida just passed Massachusetts in the percent of high school graduates who have scored 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement exam, probably the biggest upset since the tortoise and the hare.
Nobody would have believed such a thing possible 15 years ago when Florida’s public education system was one of the worst in the nation.
Looking at 2014 results, 30 percent of Florida’s graduating class earned what is generally considered a passing score on an AP exam compared to a national average of 21.6 percent. The state now ranks third in this category, behind only Connecticut and Maryland.
The reason this matters is that success in Advanced Placement courses is linked to success in college.
It also can create significant financial benefits for parents. Students have the opportunity to earn at least 3 college credits for an AP test score of 3 or higher. Based on the average cost of a credit hour, the College Board noted that “the total potential cost savings for the state’s students and families was $112,081,813.’’
This success is tied directly to reforms implemented by the state in 2000 to expand access to AP courses to all students. Under former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida partnered with the College Board to expand AP courses to traditionally under-served schools. The state also began offering financial incentives to AP teachers, which include linking bonuses to test results.
Those measures were highlighted in a 2011, ProPublica report that looked at access to AP courses by traditionally disadvantaged students. Its analysis of federal data showed that “Florida leads the nation in the percentage of high-school students enrolled in high-level classes—Advanced Placement and advanced math. That holds true across rich and poor districts.”
How well did Bush’s reforms work?
Fifteen years ago, about 65,000 AP tests were administered. Last year the total grew to about 320,000. The number of Hispanic and African American students scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam has increased nearly 40,000 students since 2000.
Preparation for success in AP begins in the early grades. And that is where Florida’s accountability reforms, such as grading schools on an A-F scale, are critical.
These reforms have led to substantial gains in academic achievement, particularly in fourth grade reading, according to test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Florida’s most disadvantaged students have been the biggest gainers. The state’s low-income fourth graders led their peers in every other state in reading on the 2013 NAEP.
By steadily increasing its academic requirements, Florida is preparing more and more students for advanced coursework in high school, and making progress toward ensuring that all students are prepared for college or a career after graduation.
This year Florida once again has upped the ante by transitioning to the rigorous Florida Standards, which are accompanied by assessments that better measure critical thinking skills. Some opponents say these standards ask too much of students, particularly traditionally disadvantaged students.
But this is the same as arguing that preparing these students for a successful life after high school is asking too much of them. The standards they will have to meet in Florida classroom are what will be expected of them by colleges and employers.
Shortchanging academic rigor to simply get students through a graduation ceremony is shortchanging their future.
Florida proves that by setting standards high for all students and holding schools accountable, states can turn around their public education systems and even compete with the best.
About the author
Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet
Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at Mike@excelined.org